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Funny things happen at South by Southwest

Hometown Wilson brothers team up for opening-night film
/ Source: The Associated Press

A funny thing may not happen on the way to the South by Southwest film festival. But funny things will be happening once you get there — comedy will be one of its main themes.

The laughs begin with the opening-night film Friday, “The Wendell Baker Story,” which reunites brothers Luke, Owen and Andrew Wilson, whose previous collaborations include “Rushmore” and “Bottle Rocket.”

Youngest brother Luke Wilson (“Old School”) directed the film with Andrew (co-star of “Rushmore”) and wrote the script. He also plays the title character, an ex-con working at a retirement home, where Owen (“Shanghai Noon”) plays the head nurse.

The world premiere at the Austin, Texas-based festival also serves as a homecoming for the Wilsons, who grew up in Dallas and went to Texas colleges.

“It’s great ‘cause it’s sort of a hometown crowd. It’s the perfect place to show it,” said Andrew Wilson, the oldest of the three. “We shot it there, it was written for Austin, and so it’s exciting to have it show there.”

Making a movie together is easy for the brothers, who range in age from 33 to 40, because “we sort of have the same instincts, a similar sense of humor, we think the same kinds of things are funny. There’s kind of a shorthand sometimes when you’re working together,” Andrew said.

“There are some occasional flare-ups, and someone might look at the flare-ups and think, ‘Oh my God, these guys are about to throw hooks.’ But it never really gets that bad.”

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Also on the schedule is “The Aristocrats,” a documentary in which 100 comedians (including Chris Rock, George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg and Paul Reiser) tell the same famous dirty joke over and over in various ways. The bit is so raunchy, we can’t even describe it here; suffice it to say, it has to do with extremely close family relations.

“It’s so on the inside,” festival producer Matt Dentler said, explaining the joke’s allure. “The industry and the creative industry in particular can be very, very secretive about its inner workings, what it takes to be a success. That joke symbolizes sort of a secret handshake of the comedy world. That’s why they love to go back to it.”

Sarah Silverman, one of the comics in “The Aristocrats,” also appears in her own concert film, “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic.” Then there’s “The Comedians of Comedy,” a documentary that follows four standup comics as they struggle on the road.

Dentler said he sees a connection between this focus on comedy and a series of music documentaries being shown at the festival, including “Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of ‘Smile,”’ “Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt,” “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and “Kill Your Idols,” about New York’s musical underground.

“We’re seeing sort of a weird reality between capturing a live performance and bringing it onto the screen and creating its own performance,” he said. But he added, “It’s never a planned thing. We program things, we put it together but it’s never really deliberate. It all just falls together.”

That laid-back approach is characteristic of the Texas capital and of the film festival, now in its 12th year and running through March 19. Also going on concurrently are the South by Southwest music and interactive festivals.

Something else that sets South by Southwest apart from some of the bigger, higher-profile festivals, Dentler said, are the panels and discussions. This year features talks with filmmaker Todd Solondz (“Storytelling,” “Happiness”) and producer Christine Vachon, considered a pioneer in the independent film world for movies including “Kids,” “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Scheduled panels include sessions on film journalism, character actors and, of course, comedy.

“You have the opportunity to get face time with people you never in a million years would run into at Sundance or Toronto,” Dentler said, “just because everyone’s laid-back and having such a good time.”